So much about this tiny camera is compelling, first and foremost that it is, as I said, tiny. Super tiny. It’s barely larger than two stacked rolls of 110 film which, not coincidentally, is the kind of film it takes. It feels like a single, solid piece of metal with a silken finish. You feel like CIA or MI5 as you expand the body to reveal the viewfinder, touch the shutter button to make a photo, hear the shutter’s seductive “snick” sound, and compress the body again to wind to the next frame.
The Rollei A110 packs a Tessar lens, 23mm at f/2.8, to wring every possible bit of performance out of the wee 13x17mm frame 110 film offers. Check out the sharpness and resolution this lens delivered on expired Fuji Superia 200 film the last time I shot my A110. If it weren’t for the odd aspect ratio of 110 film images, you might believe me if I told you I took this with one of my 35mm SLRs.
For this outing with the A110 I bought some fresh Lomography Color Tiger film. I tip my hat to the Lomography people for keeping this old format alive. I shake my fist at the Lomography people, however, for a fault in the backing paper that allows light to leak onto the film. It appears as red splotches on images, as below. I should have covered the film-counter window with electrical tape. I hope they correct the problem as they manufacture the next batch.
My A110 isn’t perfect. It has a few minor nicks in the paint. The winding mechanism moves a little roughly — I’ll bet it was buttery smooth when new.
Also, its lens cover is loose. It’s supposed to slide out of the way when you open the camera and cover the lens when you close the camera. On mine, before I make a photo I have to tilt the camera to move the cover out of the way. I usually forgot to do this and got eight black photographs for my error.
Finally, even at moderate distances parallax is a problem. Standing 15 feet or so back from this entryway I centered the scene in the frame. This is what the camera saw.
But none of this is so bad as to make my A110 a pain to use. It was easy as a breeze to carry in my pocket as my wife and I took a long hike through Eagle Creek Park in Indianapolis.
That Tessar lens is pretty sharp, as the carvings in to that tree trunk show nicely.
Despite this camera’s charms, as I worked my way through this 24-exposure film cartridge I soon wished it would be over with already. I didn’t hate using the A110, but I didn’t find joy in it either. It was a novelty, and the novelty soon wore off.
Leave it to the Germans to build the ultimate over-engineered camera for the world’s crappiest film format.
And good heavens, is 110 film ever crappy. Kodak had to develop an entirely new film technology just so that the tiny 13mm x 17mm frames on the negatives could yield usable images. And then camera companies worldwide puked forth legions of plastic 110 cameras with plastic lenses that rendered Kodak’s good work moot.
Part of what makes the Rollei A110 brilliant is that it packs a mighty fine lens – a Tessar. It’s hard to beat a Tessar; it brings out any film’s best performance. But then Rollei upped the ante, wrapping that lens in a wickedly delightful little package.
The Rollei A110 cribbed its design from tiny spy cameras of the 1960s, such as the Minox and the Minolta 16. It’s a shade under 3½ inches long; it weighs just 6½ ounces. It’s made of steel (though I gather some of the internal bits are plastic) and its finish is velvety. Grasp it at both ends and pull, and the camera not only opens to reveal a viewfinder, but winds the film, too.
The A110 is simple to use: frame the photo, slide the orange lever under the lens to focus, and give the orange button a light press. The A110 focuses from 3.5 feet to infinity; as you slide the lever, a green line moves across a scale within the viewfinder. The 23mm f/2.8 lens gives a slightly wide view, at least to my eye. From here on out, everything about the A110 is automatic. Its onboard light meter drives the aperture and shutter speed, from f/2.8 to f/16 and from 4 sec. to 1/400 sec., respectively.
Rollei introduced the A110 in 1975 and issued about 200,000 of them before production ended in 1981. Rollei’s German factory built them until 1978, when production was moved to Singapore. My A110’s film door says “Made in Germany.”
The A110 came in a velour-lined clamshell box with a flashcube attachment and a little leather case that fits the camera like a glove. (Mine was missing the box and the flashcube attachment.) If all of this sounds expensive, it was – the A110 retailed for around $300. That’s almost $1,300 in 2013 dollars.
I’ve owned but two other 110 cameras, and have reviewed only one of them: the Minolta Autopak 470 (here). The other was a crappy Keystone camera I bought new in 1984; I documented East Berlin with it that summer (some photos here). But I’ve reviewed dozens of other cameras; see all of my reviews here.
The A110 takes an odd battery, the 5.6-volt PX 27. That’s a banned mercury battery, so I bought a same-size 6-volt silver S27PX at Amazon and hoped for the best.
My first film through the A110 was Fujicolor Superia 200, expired since 1996 – problematic because the A110 “reads” a little tab on the film cartridge to set ASA in one of two ranges, 64-100 ASA and 320-500 ASA. I had no idea how it would handle this ISO 200 film.
Sure enough, all of the photos were overexposed. I used a little Photoshop trickery to rescue them. I got good color and decent sharpness (for the format), though. Here’s my favorite photo from the roll, of the Monon Trail bridge in Broad Ripple.
I walked around Broad Ripple for an hour, my dog, Gracie, on the leash, looking for things to shoot. The A110 was easy enough to shoot one-handed, though a few times when I squeezed the shutter button the shutter wouldn’t fire. I found that it always worked when I backed off and tried again.
The A110 did its best work in evenly lit situations, unlike those of the photos above and below. That’s an old Willys Jeep parked there. I should have photographed it more extensively and written it up for Curbside Classic, the old-car blog to which I contribute.
The A110 was easy enough to take everywhere. I loaded film into a late-60s Canon SLR before I loaded the A110, but I finished shooting the A110 first because it slips into my pocket and the SLR doesn’t. This is my church on a Sunday morning.
On another outing I loaded some Lomography Color Tiger film. I forgot that the backing paper leaks light; that’s what the red splotches are.
There’s nothing to using this camera. I adapted to its controls readily. When it hits, it hits big.
The A110 was in my pocket on a sunny-afternoon walk through a big city park. It was the perfect companion — until I needed it, I forgot it was there.
I have two complaints about my A110. First, the focusing scale inside the camera reads 1.5 ft, “person,” 6 ft., “group,” “mountain.” I figured “person” must be about three feet and “mountain” must be infinity, but I wasn’t sure how far out “group” was. I guessed right every time I used it, though, because all of my images came back crisp. My other complaint is probably just a quirk of my camera. A little metal lens cover hides behind the front panel, and it’s loose on this one. I kept forgetting to make sure it hadn’t slid out to cover the lens before I took a shot, and I have blank frames on my negatives as a reward. D’oh!
I was incredibly lucky to pick up this little gem for $10; they usually go for $50 and up on eBay. You’ll be hard pressed to find a 110 camera at any size that delivers results this good.
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